Today we’re continuing our Canadian adventure with a stroll through the Earth’s Treasures exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. This dazzling display of over 3,000 specimens of rocks, gems, minerals, and meteorites is a visual feast, and today we’re taking a bite out of jade.
For thousands of years, jade has been prized for its durability, luster and mystique. It has been crafted into tools, weapons, jewelry, goblets, sculpture, masks, religious statuettes and even burial suits. Jade is unique in that it is the only term in gemology that describes two chemically different minerals, nephrite and jadeite. Nephrite is more common and typically dark green. Jadeite is more durable than nephrite and comes in blue, purple, pink, or emerald green.
In addition to its practical and artistic applications, jade has also played a prominent role in the spiritual beliefs of many cultures. The Chinese, in particular, have a special fondness for jade and this was especially evident during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).
Emperor Wu (156 BC-87 BC) believed he could prolong his life by drinking a daily mixture of morning dew and jade powder from a jade cup. It’s unclear if the jade smoothies were responsible for his longevity, he did live to the ripe old age of 69. However, before you rev up the blender, keep in mind, Emperor Wu was essentially drinking gravel. Jade is lauded for its durability (remember the weapons and tools?). I’m wondering if he suffered from chronic digestive problems.
Prince Liu Sheng (d. 113 BC) and his wife, Princess Tou Wan, also had a fair share of jade fever. Prior to their death, they had craftsmen create suits made of over 2,000 plates of jade. They believed the jade would drive away bad spirits and protect them from decay. In 1968, the prince and princess’s burial chambers were excavated. The jade suits were successful in protecting their skeletons, however, the royals were not immune to decay.
Jade is porous, and according to atlasobscura.com, the prince and princess’s bodily fluids most likely leached into the tiles. If their DNA can be extracted, the royals would have achieved a form of immortality. You can view Prince Liu Sheng and Princess Tou Wan’s jade burial suits either virtually or in person, at the Hebei Museum (bucket list!) in Shijiazhuang, China.
Our final example of jade worship comes from Mesoamerica and the Olmecs (1200 BC–400 BC), the ancient people of what is today Guatemala and Mexico. Back in the day, Olmec rulers used jade perforators to tear their skin in several places. This bloodletting ritual was performed to ensure prosperity among the people and the land. Jade perforators have been found in Olmec graves, as part of their burial offerings.
These are just a few examples of jade’s influence and mystique. If you’d like to learn more about jade, check out these links: Geology.com, Shanghai Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, & Field Museum.
Fun Virtuous Fact: Xu Shen (58 AD-147AD), in his famous tome, Shuowen Jiezi (c. 100 AD), describes the five virtues associated with jade. Its warm luster and brilliance equate kindness. Jade’s soft interior shows the goodness within and represents integrity. The tranquil and high tone of jade allows it to be carried far and wide, a symbol of wisdom. Jade can be broken, but not twisted, a sign of bravery. Finally, jade represents purity because its sharp edges are not intended for violence.
Fun Rubbery Fact: The Olmecs were known as the rubber people because they tapped locally grown rubber trees for latex and mixed it with the juice of the moonflower to create rubber.
Gemological Institute of America